Weekend Entertainments, 2/1-2/3

In Washington, D.C., summers, we’d go to a movie theater to cool off. You may be considering the same strategy this weekend just to warm up! If so, here’s my take on two movies currently on view and one riotous play sparking the New Jersey theater scene. Let’s take the serious one first.

KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo, If Beale Street Could talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

When James Baldwin published the book this movie is based on back in 1974, it was out of sync with the times and not a success. Americans had turned attention from their civil rights concerns, distracted by Watergate and the windup of the Vietnam War, perhaps, or perhaps it was another sorry indicator of how short our national attention span is for issues that defy quick solutions.

Now writer/director Barry Jenkins has timed the book’s film version perfectly (trailer). All the issues Beale Street raises remain relevant, and our persistent racial injustices are once again top-of-mind. This is a love story with many threads, and each is knotty, whether the love is between a young man (played by Stephan James) and woman (KiKi Layne, the film’s gentle narrator), between parents and their daughter, or between an incarcerated father and his pre-school son, living apart. The acting is all top-notch, and I particularly enjoyed Tish’s parents, Colman Domingo and Regina King, who doesn’t have to say anything to reveal her heart to you.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences: 69%.

Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie

As a kid, I was a big Laurel and Hardy fan, and this Jon S. Baird film, written by Jeff Pope, about the duo’s late-stage career, is necessarily bittersweet (trailer). They’re approaching the top of the hill they’re about to go over. Genius British comic Steve Coogan is Stan, the writer of most of the skits and bits, and John C. Reilly, in an unbelievably natural fatsuit and rubber chin is American comic Oliver Hardy.

Although it’s a movie about two slapstick comedians and about what it means to have and be a partner, some of the funniest moments come from the sniping between Ollie’s devoted third wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Stan’s fourth wife Ida (Nina Arianda). The two women can’t stand each other, but even Ida softens when Ollie’s precarious health is endangered. Well worth the price of a ticket!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 88%.

Noises Off

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is presenting this non-stop Michael Frayn comedy on stage through February 3. Directed by Sarna Lapine, you may run out of breath laughing well before the end of Act I and the absurdities continue to pile up.

In case you’re not familiar with the story, in Act I, a lackluster theater company is in the final rocky rehearsal for a show called Nothing On, which takes place in an English country house. The house is supposed to be empty, but is soon filled with people trying not to be found there. During the cast’s conversation between scenes, you learn about several ongoing love affairs and problems among them.

In Act II, the set is turned around and, though you hear some of the play dialog on the other side of the wall, the action is backstage, mostly in pantomime, as the lovers quarrel, try to make up, and generally behave badly. There’s a pause before Act III, and the set turns again to the front. Now it’s the play’s last performance, and situations have spiralled totally out of control. Sheer mayhem!

Ellen Harvey plays the housekeeper in the play-within-the-play, Jason O’Connell the homeowner and Kathleen Chloe his wife; Michael Crane is the realtor and Adrianna Mitchell his somewhat dim would-be paramour (when the show is falling apart, she keeps delivering lines that no longer fit what’s happening); Philip Goodwin is an aging actor whose sobriety must be constantly monitored; Gopal Divan is the play director, Phillip Taratula the stage manager, and Kimiye Corwin his assistant. I named them all, because they were all so good!

The Two River ticket office online; or call 732 345 1400.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is putting on a silky-smooth version of Oscar Wilde’s classic satire, now through December 3. Although the witty dialog keeps coming and coming, you dare not do more than chuckle or you’ll miss the next line. The show’s directed by Michael Cumpsty, whom Princetonians may remember as Henry Higgins in McCarter Theatre’s excellent My Fair Lady a few years back.

Importance of Being Earnest

Sam Lilja & Liesel Allen Yeager, photo by T. Charles Erickson

And here are a few of those timeless lines:

  • The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
  • I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
  • No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
  • The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Artistic Director John Dias’s program notes say this about Wilde’s brilliant dialog: “We feel both horror and delight when witnessing this expert employment of language—its flexibility and the kind of doubleness of meaning that both masks truth and somehow reveals it.”

If you haven’t seen this play recently—or if by some mishap you’ve never seen it—this is a sparkling version. The two leads, friends Algernon Moncrieff (played by Sam Lilja) and Jack Worthing (Federico Rodriguez) are especially strong, and Liesel Allen Yeager’s Cecily Cardew is a delightful flirt.

The men fall in love, and though the women are willing, circumstances are not. How they sort out the absurdity of  Jack’s dubious origins—as a baby, he was found in a handbag in Victoria Station (“The line is immaterial!”)—and the women’s outré determination to marry men named Earnest . . . well you’ll have to experience those pleasures for yourself.

Excellent scenery from Charlie Corcoran and costumes from Jess Goldstein.

In a before-the-show talk, cast member Henry Vick (perfect as Algie’s super-discreet butler) reminds audience members that only a few months after this play opened in London to great acclaim in 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He never wrote another play.

Today, 117 years since Wilde’s death in Paris, a penniless man, we can reflect on how Victorian society, which he skewered so lightheartedly in Earnest, would seem to have had the last word, yet the fact that audiences still delight in his work and flock to see it  suggests a different outcome.

The Lion in Winter

lion-in-winter-cast

Rear: Dee Hoty, Michael Cumpsty; front: Hubert Point-Du Jour, Noah Averbach-Katz; photo: Amanda Crommett

It’s Christmas 1183. The succession to the English throne is in disarray.

The reasons are well laid out for you in this production at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, which I recently saw in preview (opening night is November 18). If you go—and for many reasons the play is well worth seeing—the problems in the second act will most likely have been resolved by director Tyne Rafaeli.

James Goldman’s 1966 play exposed deep schisms in the English court as Henry II (played by Michael Cumpsty) reached the “advanced” age of 50. He is intent upon preserving his empire, which includes England and provinces in France, especially the jewel, Aquitaine, acquired through his marriage to the elegant, passionate Eleanor (Dee Hoty). While he holds court in France, she has been imprisoned in an English castle for the past decade for treachery against Henry. She’s just arrived at the Chinon castle, released temporarily to celebrate Christmas in the viper-riddled bosom of her family.

The couple’s oldest son has died, and they are left with an unpromising trio of sons: Richard (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), Geoffrey (Hubert Point-Du Jour), and the youngest, John (Noah Averbach-Katz). Sullen warrior Richard (the Lionhearted) is the queen’s choice to succeed Henry, but the king wants the childish and rather dim John to follow him. For some reason that even he cannot understand, the scheming Geoffrey is overlooked by everyone, a non-entity in a family of manipulative power brokers.

All five of them are plotting and counter-plotting, negotiating and undermining, and trying their best to strike secret deals with the visiting 18-year-old French King Philip (Ronald Peet). Philip agrees to every plot. Why not? This is first-rate entertainment. If they tear each other apart, as every indication suggests they will, he can step in and pick up the pieces.

Henry and Eleanor’s relationship is the real heart of the play, and it has been complicated by Eleanor’s young step-daughter Alais (pronounced “Alice” and played by Madeleine Rogers), who has a long-running affair with Richard. Cumpsty and Hoty are strong in their roles, and play off each other beautifully—believable antagonists whose love still breaks through, time to time. He was a teenager when she first saw him at the French court, “with a mind like Aristotle and a body like Mortal Sin.” Were their sons ever more than pawns in their dangerous game?

Despite the deadly seriousness of the characters’ plotting, the play has quite a few lines intended to draw laughter and they did. Under Rafaeli’s direction, Act I perked along smoothly. Act II lost energy and felt over-long. I trust they will tighten that up.

Kristen Robinson’s scenic design nicely reinforces the king’s reference to the family as “jungle creatures,” and Andrea Hood’s costumes—especially for Eleanor—are gorgeous. Alais is a pale waif beside her. For tickets, call the box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the box office online.